I’ve always considered my mother’s friends to be my own friends. They’ve never acted like grownups exactly, as far as being scolding and dumbing down the conversation whenever I was in the room. There was a tribe of them, Polly, Cotty, Susan and Susie being the core. And if they were around, I definitely wanted to be around, too, not about to skulk down the hall to my room and miss anything, even as a teenager.
Polly and Cotty died a few years ago, and Susie died a few hours before I began writing this column. She’s a hard loss for so many, but especially for my mother.
Susie was her first friend when we moved to Chattanooga from Jasper, Tn. My mother knew she would never make a friend like the ones she had in our old neighborhood. She resigned herself to busying herself with unpacking and shuttling preteens when the doorbell rang. Susie and Cotty were at the door with children Claire and Will and handed her a brown paper bag of brownies. They were still frozen.
Susie looked around my mother’s house, no doubt noting the dark woodwork and vaulted ceiling and shag carpet and vinyl flooring, and said, “You’re coming to my house for dinner this Saturday.”
And so it began. Almost every day, for the past five decades, they talked on the phone when they couldn’t talk in person.
They truly held each other up, that group. When life pulled the rug right out from under them, when heartbreak and grief and loss were just too much, these ladies stepped right up, their hair perfectly coiffed and their faces breathtakingly beautiful and their stylish clothes pressed, and took charge.
They orchestrated countless weddings and funerals, and no matter how little notice they were given, they made it look like the event had been planned and deliberated over for months. For my sister’s tiny family wedding, they served crabmeat crepes from silver plated chafing dishes on heirloom china and polished silver. They arranged flowers so exquisite they would take your breath away. They did the same for my grandfather’s wedding.
They drove to Athens, Tn., three times for the tiny funerals of my grandmother, my grandfather, my aunt. They dressed in their finery and held my mother up in her grief. At my father’s family graveside service, they stood right behind her, their voices floating over the knoll as we sang hymns, tears sliding down their faces.
They acted like I was part of them, a member of their tribe, and came to lunch wherever I lived, no matter how out of the way it was or what I served. When I was in my 20s and living downtown with a few roommates, they sat at a card table as I passed out who-knows-what, and one of them commented on the plant my roommate was growing. Sitting in the window, it flourished, with spiky leaves branching out everywhere.
“I love that Japanese maple you’re growing,” Susie said.
Cotty took a long hard look at the pointed almond-shaped leaves and said, “I don’t think that’s a Japanese maple.
And instead of chastising me or warning me about what to grow or not to grow, they leaned back in their chairs and roared with laughter, clanking their iced tea glasses on the table as tea splashed everywhere, with Susie laughing harder than all of them since she’d noted the plant in the first place.
These gals walked together everyday, covering miles on Hixson Pike, on Riverview Road and over the golf course. Late one winter afternoon, as Susie and my mother strolled along the sidewalk on Hixson Pike, Susie stopped an stared at a plain little house, saying that she loved looking in the windows of the little houses at night, all illuminated and bright. And my mother thought that was so funny that Susie, who had the exquisite taste of an interior designer, would be the least bit interested in the outdated décor.
But Susie was interested and amused by so much in this life. She was interested in people. She would stand close to you when she talked, looking you right in the eye as she squeezed your arm, patted your hand, and made you feel much more entertaining and charming than you could possibly be.
“She patched up my heart when it broke,” my mother blurted out to me through her sobs, the day after her friend died.
And my mother did the same for Susie. My father tried to do the same, taking my mother and her out for a nice dinner when Susie’s marriage was over, trying to cheer her up. They ended up at the Kroger deli for some reason, and instead of insisting he take them someplace that was at least an actual restaurant, my mother and Susie dissolved in gales of laughter, ribbing my father mercilessly. “This is going to be my life as a divorcee?” Susie quipped. “Dinners at Kroger deli?” The last time I saw Susie, at lunch on Susan’s porch, they laughed about it all over again, almost 30 years later.
Women of impeccable taste, my mother and Susie loved scouring antique houses for treasure, both making a beeline to the most rare, beautiful piece in the shop. They both wanted a little wooden tray lined in hand-painted blue tiles, and Susie deferred to my mother. When my mother downsized, I got the little tray, and when I told Susie, she said, in her cute, pert, cheerful way and in her warm voice, “Well, leave it to me in your will,” as she squeezed my arm tightly.
It’s in my bathroom, right under the window. And I hope when she peeps in on me, when the house is illuminated and bright, she knows she is loved.
(Ferris Robinson is the author of two children's books, "The Queen Who Banished Bugs" and "The Queen Who Accidentally Banished Birds," in her pollinator series, with "Call Me Arthropod" coming soon. "Making Arrangements" is her first novel, and "Dogs and Love - Stories of Fidelity" is a collection of true tales about man's best friend. Her website is ferrisrobinson.com. She is the editor of The Lookout Mountain Mirror and The Signal Mountain Mirror. Ferris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )